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Death Poems: Classic, Contemporary, Witty, Serious, Tear-Jerking, Wise, Profound, Angry, Funny, Spiritual, Atheistic, Uncertain, Personal, Political, Mythic, Earthy, and Only Occasionally Morbid

Death Poems: Classic, Contemporary, Witty, Serious, Tear-Jerking, Wise, Profound, Angry, Funny, Spiritual, Atheistic, Uncertain, Personal, Political, Mythic, Earthy, and Only Occasionally Morbid

by Russ Kick

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Pretty much every poet in every age has written about death and dying. Along with love, it might be the most popular subject in poetry. Yet, until now, no anthology has gathered the best and most famous of these verses in one place.

This collection ranges dramatically. With more than 320 poems, it goes across all of history, from the ancients straight through


Pretty much every poet in every age has written about death and dying. Along with love, it might be the most popular subject in poetry. Yet, until now, no anthology has gathered the best and most famous of these verses in one place.

This collection ranges dramatically. With more than 320 poems, it goes across all of history, from the ancients straight through to today. Across countries and languages, across schools of poetry. You’ll find a plethora of approaches—witty, humorous, deadly serious, tear-jerking, wise, profound, angry, spiritual, atheistic, uncertain, highly personal, political, mythic, earthy, and only occasionally morbid.

Every angle you can think of is covered—the deaths of children, lost loves, funeral rites, close calls, eating meat, serial killers, the death penalty, roadkill, the Underworld, reincarnation, elegies for famous people, death as an equalizer, death as a junk man, death as a child, the death of God, the death of death . . . .

You’ll find death poetry’s greatest hits, including:

  • “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson
  • “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman
  • “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas
  • “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman
  • “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe
The rest of the band includes . . .Jane Austen, Mary Jo Bang, Willis Barnstone, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, Lucille Clifton, Andrei Codrescu, Wanda Coleman, Billy Collins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Nick Flynn, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Frost, Kimiko Hahn, Homer, Victor Hugo, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, C.S. Lewis, Amy Lowell, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda, Thich Nhat Hanh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilfred Owen, Rainer Maria Rilke, Christina Rossetti, Rumi, Sappho, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Ruth Stone, Wislawa Szymborska, W.B. Yeats, and a few hundred more.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Russ Kick is best known for his "disinformation" guides that expose myths and lies by unearthing subversive facts and countercultural knowledge. His books include 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know and You Are Being Lied To--volumes that challenge the reader to question assumptions. What he asks us to acknowledge with The Graphic Canon is this: Gulliver's Travels, Wuthering Heights, Leaves of Grass--these works of literature do not reside just on the shelves of academia; they flourish in the eye of our imagination." --New York Times review of The Graphic Cannon edited by Russ Kick

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death poems

Classic, Contemporary, Witty, Serious, Tear-Jerking, Wise, Profound, Angry, Funny, Spiritual, Atheistic, Uncertain, Personal, Political, Mythic, Earthy, and Only Occasionally Morbid

By Russ Kick

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2013 Russ Kick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938875-04-5


the nature of death

In which the poets reflect on what death is, meditate on why it happens, and pontificate on what it means to us

    From "Song of Myself"


    I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
    and women, And the hints about old men and mothers, and the
    offspring taken soon out of their laps.
    What do you think has become of the young and old men?
    And what do you think has become of the women and children?
    They are alive and well somewhere,
    The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
    And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
    to arrest it,
    And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
    All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
    And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

    * * *

    Death the Leveller


    The glories of our blood and state
    Are shadows, not substantial things;
    There is no armour against fate;
    Death lays his icy hand on kings:
    Sceptre and Crown
    Must tumble down,
    And in the dust be equal made
    With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.
    Some men with swords may reap the field,
    And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
    But their strong nerves at last must yield;
    They tame but one another still:
    Early or late
    They stoop to fate,
    And must give up their murmuring breath,
    When they, pale captives, creep to death.
    The garlands wither on your brow;
    Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
    Upon Death's purple altar now
    See, where the victor-victim bleeds:
    Your heads must come
    To the cold tomb;
    Only the actions of the just
    Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.

    * * *



    Death alone
    has sympathy for weariness:
    of the ways
    of mathematics:
    of the struggle
    against giving up what was given:
    the plus one minus one
    of nitrogen for oxygen:
    and the unequal odds,
    you a cell
    against the universe,
    a breath or two
    against all time:
    Death alone
    takes what is left
    without protest, criticism
    or a demand for more
    than one can give
    who can give
    no more than was given:
    doesn't even ask,
    but accepts it as it is,
    without examination,
    or comparison.

    * * *

    Poets Have Chanted Mortality


    It had better been hidden
    But the Poets inform:
    We are chattel and liege
    Of an undying Worm.
    Were you, Will, disheartened,
    When all Stratford's gentry
    Left their Queen and took service
    In his low-lying country?
    How many white cities
    And grey fleets on the storm
    Have proud-builded, hard-battled,
    For this undying Worm?
    Was a sweet chaste lady
    Would none of her lover.
    Nay, here comes the Lewd One,
    Creeps under her cover!
    Have ye said there's no deathless
    Of face, fashion, form,
    Forgetting to honor
    The extent of the Worm?
    O ye laughers and light-lipped,
    Ye faithless, infirm,
    I can tell you who's constant,
    'Tis the Eminent Worm.
    Ye shall trip on no limits,
    Neither time ye your term,
    In the realms of His Absolute
    Highness the Worm.

    * * *

    Death Is a Fisherman


    Death is a fisherman, the world we see
    His fish-pond is, and we the fishes be;
    His net some general sickness; howe'er he
    Is not so kind as other fishers be;
    For if they take one of the smaller fry,
    They throw him in again, he shall not die:
    But death is sure to kill all he can get,
    And all is fish with him that comes to net.

* * *

Death Snips Proud Men


Death is stronger than all the governments because the governments are men and men die and then death laughs: Now you see 'em, now you don't.

Death is stronger than all proud men and so death snips proud men on the nose, throws a pair of dice and says: Read 'em and weep.

Death sends a radiogram every day: When I want you I'll drop in—and then one day he comes with a master-key and lets himself in and says: We'll go now.

Death is a nurse mother with big arms: 'Twon't hurt you at all; it's your time now; just need a long sleep, child; what have you had anyhow better than sleep?

* * *

    On Death, Without Exaggeration


    It can't take a joke,
    find a star, make a bridge.
    It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
    building ships, or baking cakes.

    In our planning for tomorrow,
    it has the final word,
    which is always beside the point.

    It can't even get the things done
    that are part of its trade:
    dig a grave,
    make a coffin,
    clean up after itself.

    Preoccupied with killing,
    it does the job awkwardly,
    without system or skill.
    As though each of us were its first kill.

    Oh, it has its triumphs,
    but look at its countless defeats,
    missed blows,
    and repeat attempts!

    Sometimes it isn't strong enough
    to swat a fly from the air.
    Many are the caterpillars
    that have outcrawled it.

    All those bulbs, pods,
    tentacles, fins, tracheae,
    nuptial plumage, and winter fur
    show that it has fallen behind
    with its halfhearted work.

    Ill will won't help
    and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'état
    is so far not enough.

    Hearts beat inside eggs.
    Babies' skeletons grow.
    Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
    and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

    Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
    is himself living proof
    that it's not.

    There's no life
    that couldn't be immortal
    if only for a moment.

    always arrives by that very moment too late.
    In vain it tugs at the knob
    of the invisible door.
    As far as you've come
    can't be undone.

    Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baraczak and Clare Cavanagh

* * *

    That Morning


    I got up a little after daybreak:
    I saw a Luna Moth had fallen
    between the window and a torn screen.
    I lifted the window, the wings broke
    on the floor, became green and silver powder.
    My eyes followed green, as if all green
    was a single web, past the Lombardy poplars,
    and the lilac hedge leading to the back road.

    I can believe the world
    might have been the color of hide or driftwood,
    but there was—and is—the gift of green,
    and a second gift we can perceive the green,
    although we are often blind to miracles.
    There was no resurrection of green and silver wings.
    They became a blue stain on an oak floor.
    I wish I had done something ordinary,
    performed an unknown, unseen miracle,
    raised the window the night before,
    let the chill November air come in.

    I cannot help remembering
    e.e. cummings' wife said, hearing him
    choking to death in the next room,
    she thought she heard moths on the window screen
    attracted to the nightlight in his study.
    Reader, my head is not a gravestone.
    It's just that a dead poet and a Luna Moth
    alighted. Mr. Death, you're not a stone wall.
    You're more like a chain-link fence
    I can see through to the other side. There's the rub:
    You are a democracy, the land of opportunity,
    the Patria. Some say you are a picnic.

    Are there any gate-crashers beside the barbecue?
    I'm afraid every living and once-living thing
    will be asked to leave again.
    The first death is just playtime.
    There is a DEAD END beyond darkness
    where everyone and every thing tries to turn around.
    Every thing that ever lived sounds its horn.
    And you, Mr. Death, are just a traffic cop.

    * * *

    "Death is a dialogue between"


    Death is a dialogue between
    The spirit and the dust.
    "Dissolve," says Death. The Spirit, "Sir,
    I have another trust."

    Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
    The Spirit turns away,
    Just laying off, for evidence,
    An overcoat of clay.

    * * *



    Calm Death, God of crossed hands and passionless eyes,
    Thou God that never heedest gift nor prayer,
    Men blindly call thee cruel, unaware
    That everything is dearer since it dies.
    Worn by the chain of years, without surprise,
    The wise man welcomes thee, and leaves the glare
    Of noisy sunshine gladly, and his share
    He chose not in mad life and windy skies.
    Passions and dreams of love, the fever and fret
    Of toil, seem vain and petty when we gaze
    On the imperious Lords who have no breath:
    Atoms or worlds—we call them lifeless, yet
    In thy unending peaceful day of days
    They are divine, all-comprehending Death.

    * * *

    Faded Love


    I am surrounded by death
    it happens to everyone
    all the time
    Some people try not to notice
    not me I've always known this
    and paid attention
    Nobody forces me to go on
    I know what this means
    one day I won't pay attention
    and nobody will notice

    * * *

    From Queen Mab

    How wonderful is Death,
    Death, and his brother Sleep!
    One, pale as yonder waning moon
    With lips of lurid blue;
    The other, rosy as the morn
    When throned on ocean's wave
    It blushes o'er the world;
    Yet both so passing wonderful!

    * * *



    Great is the similarity between
    These two fair figures, although one appears
    Much paler than the other, far more calm;
    Fairer and nobler even, I might say,
    Than his companion, in whose arms
    I lay so warmly. How divine and soft
    Were all his smiles, and what a look was his!
    It must have been the poppy-wreath he wore
    About his brows that touched my throbbing head
    And with its magic perfume soothed all pain
    And sorrow in my soul ... But such sweet balm
    Lasts but a little while; I can be cured
    Completely only when the other one,
    The grave and paler brother, drops his torch.
    For Sleep is good, but Death is better still—
    The best is never to be born at all.

    Translated from the German by Louis Untermeyer

    * * *

    On Death


    Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
    And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
    The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
    And yet we think the greatest pain's to die.
    How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
    And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
    His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
    His future doom which is but to awake.

    * * *

    Sleep and His Brother Death


    Just ere the darkness is withdrawn,
    In seasons of cold or heat,
    Close to the boundary line of Dawn
    These mystical brothers meet.
    They clasp their weird and shadowy hands,
    As they listen each to each,
    But never a mortal understands
    Their strange immortal speech.

    * * *

    From The Faerie Queene


    For all that lives, is subject to that law:
    All things decay in time, and to their end do draw.

    * * *

    "Were I a King"


    Were I a King, I might command content;
    Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares;
    And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,—
    Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears!
    A doubtful choice for me, of three things, one to crave:
    A Kingdom, or a Cottage, or a Grave!

    * * *

    Death the Consecrator


    O Death, the Consecrator!
    Nothing so sanctifies a name
    As to be written—Dead.
    Nothing so wins a life from blame,
    So covers it from wrath and shame,
    As doth the burial-bed.

    O Death, the revelator!
    Our deepest passions never move
    Till thou hast bid them wake;
    We know not half how much we love
    Till all below and all above
    Is shrouded for our sake.

    O Death, the great peacemaker!
    If enmity hath come between
    There's naught like death to heal it;
    And if we love, O priceless pain,
    O bitter-sweet, when love is vain!
    There's naught like death to seal it.

    * * *

    "O Death the Healer"


    O Death the Healer, scorn thou not, I pray,
    To come to me: of cureless ills thou art
    The one physician. Pain lays not its touch
    Upon a corpse.

    Translated from the Greek by E.H. Plumptre

    * * *

    From "Mortality"


    O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
    Like a fast-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
    A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
    He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

    The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
    Be scattered around, and together be laid;
    And the young and the old, and the low and the high,
    Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.
    The child that a mother attended and loved,

    The mother that infant's affection that proved;
    The husband that mother and infant that blessed,
    Each, all, are away to their dwelling of rest.

    The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,
    Shone beauty and pleasure,—her triumphs are by;
    And the memory of those that beloved her and praised
    Are alike from the minds of the living erased.

    The hand of the king that the scepter hath borne,
    The brow of the priest that the miter hath worn,
    The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,
    Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.

    The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap,
    The herdsman who climbed with his goats to the steep,
    The beggar that wandered in search of his bread,
    Have faded away like the grass that we tread.

    The saint that enjoyed the communion of heaven,
    The sinner that dared to remain unforgiven,
    The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
    Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

    So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
    That wither away to let others succeed;
    So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
    To repeat every tale that hath often been told.

    * * *

    "A Very Ancient Ode" (from Japanese Literature)


    Mountains and ocean-waves
    Around me lie;
    Forever the mountain-chains
    Tower to the sky;
    Fixed is the ocean
    Man is a thing of nought,
    Born but to die!

    Translated from the Japanese by Epiphanius Wilson

    * * *

    From "Thanatopsis"


    Yet a few days, and thee
    The all-beholding sun shall see no more
    In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
    Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
    Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
    Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
    Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
    And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
    Thine individual being, shalt thou go
    To mix for ever with the elements,
    To be a brother to the insensible rock
    And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
    Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
    Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
    Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
    Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
    Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
    With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
    The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
    Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
    All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
    Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
    Stretching in pensive quietness between;
    The venerable woods—rivers that move
    In majesty, and the complaining brooks
    That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
    Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,—
    Are but the solemn decorations all
    Of the great tomb of man.


Excerpted from death poems by Russ Kick. Copyright © 2013 Russ Kick. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Russ Kick is the editor of the wildly successful three-volume anthology The Graphic Canon: The World's Great Literature as Comics and Visuals and the bestselling anthologies You Are Being Lied ToEverything You Know is Wrong, and 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know . His books have sold over half a million copies. The New York Times has dubbed him “an information archaeologist,” Details magazine described him as “a Renaissance man,” and Utne Readernamed him one of its “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” He is creator of the popular website www.thememoryhole.com

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